Crash Course in Combat Training

After being relieved of his cooking responsibilities, Grandpa started combat training. That meant marching, sometimes for miles, to a shooting range or mock battlefield in the Flint Hills near Camp Funston.

Soldiers Marching

Troops training at Camp Funston, 1917. From the collection of the Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

March 1, 1918

This regiment had a sham battle this afternoon. I was among the dead. Sure some fun. I was glad they named me dead as I was out of wind.

His light-hearted account—some fun and being out of breath—surprised me. He was training for war, after all. But then, he couldn’t know what lay ahead, how real battle would change his life. And he wasn’t alone. The U.S. Army struggled to understand their role in raising and training an army to fight a type of war they’d never seen.

In 1920, shortly after the war, George English, a member of the 89th Division (Grandpa’s division) and later its historian, described the situation. “It was realized that the Great War had introduced new methods with which no one in America was familiar except by report. On the Western Front of Europe the Warfare and Position had superseded the open warfare to which our Army had been trained.” (George English, History of the 89th Division, 31-32)

By “position” he meant trench, and by “open” he meant a field where enemy combatants met, weapons drawn. Here’s why this distinction arose, according to English. “The war of position or trench warfare developed as a result of the improvement in fire power through the use of rapid-fire weapons, particularly the machine gun,” which, he said, had more than fifty times the fire power of the rifle—the weapon known to the U.S. Army. (English, 32)

Trench warfare, as practiced in the early years of the war, had led to a defensive stalemate, with both sides literally entrenched. It was General Pershing who argued for training American soldiers to be competent in both “position” and “open” warfare. He pictured Americans driving the enemy into defeat. Infantry soldiers like my grandfather largely proved him correct.*

At Camp Funston, Carpenter Hill (north of Fort Riley) was one of the practice fields provided for training. It covered an area, according to George English, “about a thousand yards square and comprised three lines of trenches with communicating trenches, dugouts, wire entanglements and machine gun emplacements.” (English, 35)

March 1, 1918 (continued)

We had crawled for quite a while, then had the order to make a rush so the run almost got my wind. So I got to rest quite a while then until the battle was over. 

It’s not clear from Grandpa’s letter, which practice battlefield his group used that day, and whether it included trenches. (Later letters specify trenches.) The order Grandpa described in this letter, “to make a rush,” was a skill similar to “going over the top,” the term used in France when soldiers rushed out of the trenches and faced the Germans in open warfare.

To build confidence for such a confrontation, shooting ranges were set up at Funston and instructors were brought in from Britain and France to demonstrate the weapons being used on the front, including machine guns, bayonets and grenades. One of the British instructors, Major G.W. Hall, caught the attention of the camp newspaper, Trench and Camp, March 30, 1918, which reported on his instruction. “The loud bark of machine guns pouring their deadly streams of lead into the hillside targets can be heard above the other sounds of activity about Camp Funston these days.” Grandpa noticed the same, “Sure some noise when about two hundred gets to shooting.”

Grandpa’s combat training only lasted ten weeks before he was sent overseas. The army had hoped for a six-month period of training, but didn’t have that luxury. The war wouldn’t wait. Before Grandpa left, he had yet another important training to complete: surviving a gas attack. More on that in April.

Marching camp funston 3-27-18

In March 1918, Grandpa began using stationery with scenes of army life.

 

* I found an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of trench versus open warfare in World War 1, and General Pershing’s opinion of them, in a master’s thesis by Roger Spickelmier for a degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1987. It’s available to read online: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a185226.pdf

To see pictures of the trenches, check out the Kansas Memory section of Kansas State Historical Society’s website. Search with keyword “Funston.” Here’s an example showing the Red Cross training with the troops: http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/308242/page/1

 

 

2 thoughts on “Crash Course in Combat Training

  1. Two weeks training before leaving for trench warfare is quite frightening. Wonder how long it took before their machine guns were in the market place.
    Your book is moving along. Anxious to hear what happens in France.

    Like

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